Flanked by a green John Deere tractor on the right and a similar all-terrain vehicle on his left, former Republican candidate for governor Robert Foster announced his support for Bill Waller Jr., citing Medicaid and teacher pay, in the party’s primary runoff at a Tuesday morning press conference in DeSoto County. The Jackson Free Press broke the news yesterday that Foster, a Mississippi House representative, planned to endorse Waller.
In a video that WMC Actions News 5 reporter Brandon Richard uploaded to Twitter from the announcement in Hernando, Miss., Foster said he had “prayed quite a bit” about the endorsement and listened to input from his supporters. Some people had told him to sit this one out, he said.
“There are thousands and thousands of people out there in the State of Mississippi (who supported me in the election) trying to make up their decision on which way to go. And I wanted to give you just a little bit of insight as to why I decided, instead of sitting this out, that I’m going to support Justice Waller,” Foster said.
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Ultimately, it came down to the issues. Foster said the state is last place in too many good things “for no reason at all.” “It’s because we have policies in place in Jackson that keep us in last place,” he said. “And there are some things that we can change in Mississippi.”
Foster was referring to Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, whose role includes serving as president of the Mississippi Senate, giving him strong legislative powers and the ability to appoint committee chairmen and chairwomen, and block or prioritize legislation.
Waller told reporters that he was proud to have Foster’s endorsement because the young House representative “is going to be there for the future to help guide us.” He told Foster that he would be an adviser on his team as governor.
Waller: Wrong to Have ‘Lowest Paid Teachers’
In the Aug. 6 GOP primary, Reeves netted 48.9% of all votes, putting him at a little more than a point shy of the 50%-plus-one vote he needed to avoid a runoff. Waller came in second place with 33.3% of the vote. While Foster was far behind either, he still won 66,000 votes—nearly 18% of all cast in the primary. He won just two counties: His home county, DeSoto, and Tate County directly south, while Reeves lost his home country of Rankin to Waller.
“He and I agree on a lot of things. We agree that Mississippi needs to do better,” Waller said of Foster in a video also tweeted by the WMC Action News 5 anchor. “The state, since the recession of 2008, our gross domestic product has gone up 2%, folks. The United States has gone up 22-and-a-half percent. Now who is happy with that? Every state around us is double digits, and folks, we’ve got to do better.”
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That was a jab at Reeves who, after eight years as lieutenant governor, has spent his time on the campaign trail touting only positive economic news in Mississippi, such as the state’s low employment rate. Waller moved onto a discussion of education.
“We agree that the picture of having the highest paid superintendent and the lowest paid teachers is wrong,” Waller said, alluding to the fact that Reeves scuttled an attempt at a $4,000 teacher pay raise this year—and the fact that the Mississippi Department of Education Superintendent Carrie Wright is the highest paid in the nation, making $174,000 per year. “We agree that career and technical education needs to be a part of our high schools—not community colleges.”
Reeves, who said earlier in the legislative session that Mississippi could not afford more than a $1,500 teacher pay raise, unveiled last month a $100 million proposal that includes $75 million for career technical education in the state’s community colleges.
Waller, Foster Pushing Medicaid Expansion
One of the main issues of contention is Medicaid expansion, which would bring health-care access to about 300,000 Mississippians who make too much to be eligible for traditional Medicaid but do not make enough to be eligible for private-insurance subsidies through healthcare.gov.
Since the Affordable Care Act's implementation in 2013, Gov. Phil Bryant and Reeves' resistance to President Barack Obama's signature health-care law has caused the State to forego billions in federal funds that could have been used to expand Medicaid. Not only has it kept a large number of Mississippians from having realistic health-care options, but it has also imperiled already-struggling rural hospitals that would see a boost if more Mississippians had access to Medicaid. Five rural hospitals have closed in the state since 2015, due in part to the state's decision to forego expansion.
“We agree that health care is at a crisis,” Waller said. “That we need to be making our hospitals strong, and not close hospitals.”
Mississippi House Rep. Robert Foster is running for governor in the Republican primary, running against current Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican from Florence, Miss., among others.
Foster, like Waller, supported some version of Medicaid expansion, which they call "Medicaid reform"—messaging designed to make it easier for Republicans to accept the idea of Mississippi implementing a major component of Obama's law. Reeves, though, remains completely opposed.
At the July 23 televised Republican debate, Reeves declared that he was "the only conservative" on the stage and repeated his opposition to expansion, which he calls "Obamacare expansion." Foster shot back, saying that while he thinks "Obamacare" was a bad thing, Reeves' rejection of billions of dollars to bring health care to more Mississippians is out of touch.
"It's hard for somebody like the lieutenant governor to understand this because he's been on the government rolls the last 16 years of his life and had everything handed to him by the taxpayers in Mississippi," Foster said.
Waller said his plan for "Medicaid reform" would be fiscally responsible.
"There is no cost to the state," he said. "The hospitals have agreed to underwrite it, and what the participants pay will fund the program."
"I do not believe it would be no cost to the state. That's a fairy-tale belief," he claimed. At the Neshoba County Fair on Aug. 1, Waller told a crowd that he is a conservative, and because of that, he believes that people who want to work should be able to do so without having to give up health care if they make too much to qualify for traditional Medicaid.
"I think we should incentivize people to work. I was told yesterday about a young man who works every day. He needs a diabetes pump. He can't get any kind of insurance," Waller said. "Well, folks, this is the people we would bring in on Medicaid reform. Those that are trying to work. You know, we get that young man a pump, he may be a full-time employee in a year. Isn't that what life's all about? Don't we need to give people a step up?"
Reeves' Donations from the 'I.V. League'
Earlier this month, the Jackson Free Press reported that Reeves received $20,000 from the Mississippi Medical PAC, a physicians PAC that touts itself as an "I.V. League" of donors. It has repeatedly endorsed and donated to political candidates in the state who oppose Medicaid expansion, including Bryant and Reeves.
Waller and Foster also received large donations from pro-expansion PACs that represent hospitals, including $50,000 to Waller from the Mississippi Hospitals PAC.
Wealthy donors and corporate PACs, including those who oppose Medicaid expansion to insure more Mississippians, have helped Tate Reeves raise more than $5 million so far this year.
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, the Democratic nominee whom the ultimate GOP nominee will face in November, announced his support for Medicaid expansion when he launched his campaign last fall.
At last month's debate and at the Neshoba County Fair, Foster and Waller also jointly criticized Reeves for the way he pushed through a $3 million expansion of the state's voucher program, which transfers public-education funds to tuition for private schools. Republican leaders, including Reeves who is president of the Mississippi Senate, snuck the money into an unrelated funding bill just minutes before asking members to vote—without telling them about the voucher funds.
At the fair, Reeves defended his support for the voucher program, saying it helps special- needs children. A PEER committee review of the program last year, though, found that just a few hundred children are able to take advantage of the vouchers. Of those, many go to private schools that do not even have special- needs facilities. In some of those cases, public schools have to use their special needs resources to help the children at private schools.
At Tuesday’s press conference, Waller said he and Foster also agree on his central platform—rebuilding roads and bridges. At campaign events, Waller often wears a Trump-style red baseball cap with the words, “Make Mississippi Roads Great Again” in white.
Waller also took a quick pot shot at Reeves’s for his performance in his home county, Rankin, on Aug. 6.
“We agree that, for November, for a candidate to win, that he needs to carry his own county,” Waller said.
Waller beat Reeves in Rankin County with 45% of the vote to Reeves 42%. Waller also won his own home county, Hinds, with 59% of the vote to Reeves’ 34%. Reeves was the only Republican candidate who did not win his home county on primary night. Hood swept all Mississippi counties in the Democratic primary, including his home county, Chickasaw.
Waller: ‘Nothing Conservative’ About Ignoring Issues
Ahead of Foster’s endorsement, Reeves questioned Waller’s conservatism in a tweet on Monday.
“Bill Waller is a nice man. I think he is a good man. He is not a conservative. If you support Obamacare and higher taxes, you are not a conservative,” he said, referring to the fact that Waller wants to raise the gas tax to help fund infrastructure. “If you never voted in a Republican state primary until your name was on the ballot, you haven’t earned the Republican nomination.”
Waller responded to that criticism in an email to supporters announcing Foster’s endorsement Tuesday morning.
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“There’s nothing conservative about pretending Mississippi doesn’t have issues to address. That’s why I’m proposing conservative solutions, not politics as usual,” Waller wrote. “I’m not satisfied with Mississippi having the lowest-paid teachers in America, 5000 miles of state highways and 400 state bridges that need repair, and half of our rural hospitals in jeopardy of closing.”
“Robert Foster and I share a strong belief in conservative values, protecting our Constitutional liberties and a sincere desire to tackle Mississippi’s most pressing issues.”
Reeves earned his own "anti-endorsement" on Monday, when Mississippi Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, shared an implicit criticism of Waller and endorsement of two of Reeves’ positions in a post his to his more than 228,000 Facebook followers.
“It’s impossible to drain the swamp by endorsing Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion and a gas tax increase,” McDaniel wrote. “To the contrary, such policies empower bureaucrats and politicians by allowing them to steal more of our hard earned money. Policy still matters, doesn’t it?”
“Couldn’t agree more, Senator,” Reeves tweeted, sharing a screenshot of McDaniel’s message at 8:31 a.m. on Tuesday—just before Foster’s announcement.
McDaniel, who has previously identified with the conservative Tea Party brand, made unsuccessful bids for U.S. Senate in 2014 and again last year.
Reeves spent Monday in Petal, Miss., near Hattiesburg. He accepted an endorsement from Hal Marx, Petal’s conservative mayor who also endorsed McDaniel’s 2018 bid.
GOP Runoffs on Aug. 27
Reeves and Waller go head-to-head in a Republican party runoff on Aug. 27—the first time that has happened in a GOP primary for governor since 1991. In 2011, then-Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant won the Republican nomination for governor outright with 59% of the vote.
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The Aug. 27 primary runoffs are open to any registered voter. However, if you voted in one party's primary in yesterday's election, you cannot switch parties and vote in the other runoff.
"If you voted in the Republican primary yesterday, you cannot vote in the Democratic primary in three weeks and vice versa," Hinds County Republican Party Chairman Pete Perry told the JFP on Aug. 7. "If you did not vote, you can vote in whatever primary."
After voters decide, the GOP nominee will face Hood on Nov. 5. Current Mississippi Treasurer Lynn Fitch and Madison attorney Andy Taggart also go head-to-head in a runoff in the GOP race for attorney general on that day, as well as runoffs in a number of Jackson-area legislative and Hinds County races.
Because Foster ran in the Republican primary for governor, he could not run for re-election to his House seat, which he first won in 2015. A new representative will replace him in the House in January 2020.
Mississippians must register at least 30 days before an election in order to be eligible to vote and must show an accepted form of photo ID at the voting booth, a list of which is available on the Secretary of State website. County circuit clerks across the state offer all residents free photo IDs that they can use to vote.
Follow State Reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Send story tips to [email protected]. Follow statewide election coverage at jacksonfreepress.com/2019elections.